China assumes climate mantle as USA falters

Paradigm shift: Xi has said China “will keep its door wide open and not close it.” © Getty

As the USA pulls out of the Paris climate accord, China has signalled its intention to lead the fight against climate change. A geopolitical shift is taking place. Should we welcome it?

Donald Trump has taken the momentous step of pulling the USA out of the Paris climate accord. The country where many of the world’s foremost climate scientists are based is, in the words of one journalist, “retreating from the fight”.

China, meanwhile, the world’s largest polluter, many of whose cities still lie under a thick blanket of smog, appears to be taking the lead. Xi Jinping, China’s president, has confirmed that the country remains committed to the accord, and to drastically reducing its emissions.

To many, this seems like a fundamental geopolitical shift.

After the second world war, the world’s divisions were clear. In the West, there were Western Europe and the USA: free, capitalist, prosperous. In the East, there were China and the Soviet empire: authoritarian, communist, poor. But a new, more confusing world order is taking shape.

This shift goes beyond environmental matters. Xi’s speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos this year set out his plan to transform China’s image around the world.

Without mentioning Trump by name, he attacked the president’s economic views. He said “no one will emerge as a winner in a trade war,” and likened protectionism to “locking oneself in a dark room”. Liberals and free marketeers purred in response to his defence of globalisation.

Stephen Green, former chairman of HSBC, is a firm believer that China will dominate the next century. He says China has a “boundless and insatiable curiosity” that puts the West in the shade.

Citing a growing middle-class, a huge appetite for the best education and an economic miracle which has meant that since 1981 the poverty rate fell from 85% to under 10%, he believes that China’s rise will be “infinitely enriching” for the world. According to Green, China is transforming faster, and more consequentially, than the UK did during the industrial revolution.

To those with a Eurocentric view of history, this may seem alarming, but many Chinese people feel they are the world’s natural superpower. Should we welcome this rise?

Planet China

“Yes we should”, say some. As Europe’s economy slows and the USA becomes more insular, the world needs a new, energetic driving force. China will do that job well. It has a rich culture and, emerging from its authoritarian past, it is adopting the liberal principles of the West. Let us embrace this development.

“China has done an amazing PR job on the rest of the world,” reply others. Actually it is a dictatorship that has appropriated the West’s political language, while still exploiting workers, locking up journalists and executing thousands. If people realise that freedom is no longer needed to be rich, how long can freedom itself last?

You Decide

  1. Do you think China will dominate the world by 2100? If not, who?
  2. Would China replacing the USA as the world’s only superpower be a good thing?


  1. Class debate: “This house believes that Chinese should be compulsory in schools.”
  2. Read Stephen Green’s speech in the second link under Become An Expert. In 500 words, summarise it in your own words.

Some People Say...

“China may become economically dominant, but it will never be culturally dominant.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
We know that China’s president Xi Jinping is keen to make his country appear as the new torch-bearer of liberal internationalism. China has become a leading voice in favour of free trade, and is looking to do the same with the environmental movement. We know that China’s economy has completely transformed in the last three decades.
What do we not know?
There are still huge unknowns. Is China serious about its commitments to openness and to cutting carbon emissions? Is it overdependent on its exports? Can it overcome its demographic crisis — as has often been said, “China is the first country in history to grow old before it has become rich.” The road to a Sino-centric world will not be straight.

Word Watch

Four Chinese cities — Xingtai, Baoding, Shijuazhang and Handan — are among the top 20 most polluted cities in the world. (According to the World Health Organization.)
World Economic Forum in Davos
The world’s leaders, top economists and top entrepreneurs meet in Davos, a mountain resort in Switzerland, every year. The World Economic Forum’s stated mission is to improve “the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas”.
Shielding a country’s domestic industries from foreign competition by taxing imports.
The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation — one of the largest banks in the world.
World’s natural superpower
Professor James Petras writes: “The study of world power has been blighted by Eurocentric historians who have distorted and ignored the dominant role China played in the world economy between 1100 and 1800.” The 19th century was a disastrous period for China as its power was rapidly overtaken by Europe.


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